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Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offense searches for reloaded skill positions

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When returning 10 starters on defense, much of the springtime conversation will focus on offensive skill positions. Notre Dame needs to replace two starting receivers, Heisman-candidate running back Josh Adams and primary tight end Durham Smythe.

Who fills those voids will not be determined this spring, but the conversation has at least begun.

In a “strengthening” running back situation, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said the position will be most dictated by rising senior running back Dexter Williams’ development.

“It starts with Dexter and his ability to maintain himself in a position where he can be on the field for all three downs,” Kelly said Thursday. “That’s pass protection, play-action fakes, all the little detail things that go along with playing the position.

“It’s something that he’s been below the line on. He’s shown this spring he understands how important that is and he’s above the line on those things.”

If Williams does not grasp all those aspects of the offense, the ones not focused on taking a handoff and finding a hole, then rising junior Tony Jones’ role will only increase.

“Tony’s been really, really steady in everything he’s done,” Kelly said. “He’s healthy, very coachable, and so we like that combination right now.”

Tony Jones’ all-around game has him well-positioned for an influx of playing time this fall. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The options at running back are limited. In addition to Williams and Jones, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith and receiver-turned-running back/receiver Jafar Armstrong are around to take carries.

The possibilities at receiver are far more numerous, albeit just as uncertain. All indications point to rising senior Miles Boykin establishing himself as a primary option, and rising junior Chase Claypool continues to recover from shoulder surgery. After those two, questions abound.

“We’re going to find that we’ve got seven-to-eight guys that we can work with,” Kelly said. “We’ll find out what the best rotation is there. We’re going to be solid there. … We have to find something at the receiver position that gives us good balance.”

Rising senior Chris Finke, rising sophomore Michael Young and rising junior Javon McKinley lead the way of that mingling handful. Clearly, there could be depth at receiver, especially if the summer yields further development. Such depth already exists at tight end, the only quality at that position Kelly espoused, which makes sense given how many tight ends are recovering from injury.

RELATED READING: Familiar praise of Notre Dame’s tight ends rings anew

Not all 10 returning defensive starters will start.
On paper, Notre Dame needs to find only a linebacker to complete its starting defense — a rover, in particular, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill moving to Buck linebacker, leaving the hybrid role available for a newcomer. In reality, the Irish need to find a safety or two, and that has not happened yet this spring.

“Defensively, we still need to emerge at the safety position,” Kelly said.

That need prompted Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea to move early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith from cornerback to safety last week. Griffith offers “contact skills,” tackling and an “ability to play the ball in the air,” the same traits Kelly often touts when discussing a new candidate at safety.

“All in all, halfway through we’ve learned a lot more about our football team,” Kelly said. “We’ll continue to do that on the back half.”

Mock Draft Season
There is a reason the phrase begins with a four-letter word. It is inane, fruitless, futile. The exercise never ends and has essentially no payoff. Nonetheless, with the NFL Draft only three-plus weeks away, spending 45 seconds on the seasonal speculation makes some sense.

Notre Dame will likely produce two first-round picks this cycle in offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. Various mock drafts project Nelson to go in the top 10, perhaps just outside of it, while McGlinchey looks to be a top-20 pick, as well. Picking in those ranges is as much about a team’s roster needs as anything else, especially when selecting an offensive lineman.

A brief sampling:
Pro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo: Nelson at No. 11 to the Miami Dolphins; McGlinchey at No. 12 to the Cincinnati Bengals.
RotoWorld’s Josh Norris: Nelson at No. 8 to the Chicago Bears; McGlinchey at No. 17 to the San Diego Chargers.
The Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer: Nelson at No. 7 to the Tampa Bay Bucs; McGlinchey at No. 17 to the Chargers.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s need for ‘consistency’ in the ‘second year’ of these schemes
Familiar praise of Notre Dame’s tight ends rings anew
Wimbush and Notre Dame’s on-field development aided by not heeding off-field talk
Rees recognizes Book’s challenge from both sides of the Notre Dame QB competition
Notre Dame’s offensive line shifts while Wimbush improves accuracy, consistency

OUTSIDE READING:
Notre Dame clinches title with last-second win
Why the Irish? Why now?
Walk-on players contribute to team’s success in quiet fashion
Jeff Samardzija shares recipe for double duty with Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet

Notre Dame’s offensive line shifts while Wimbush improves accuracy, consistency

Associated Press
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Halfway through spring practice, Notre Dame’s offensive line remains in distinct flux, albeit an expected one. A week ago, Irish head coach Brian Kelly made it clear he did not anticipate exiting spring with a set front. Instead, he wants to know what his options in 2018 will be.

“I want to know where we are when we leave the spring as to who can play what positions,” Kelly said Saturday. “Who is going to be the next left tackle? Is there a starting left tackle or right tackle? Does [rising junior] Liam [Eichenberg] go over next week and start playing some left tackle?”

Yes, Eichenberg does, it would seem.

Kelly said Eichenberg spent Thursday’s practice at left tackle, with rising sophomore Robert Hainsey moving to right tackle, where he spent his debut season. In that alignment, rising junior Tommy Kraemer moved to left guard from right tackle, where he spent the 2017 season and much of the spring to date.

Of course, fifth-years Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars remain at center and right guard, respectively.

Eichenberg’s solid play this spring has created this whole new set of possibilities, perhaps allowing Hainsey to remain at right tackle where he is both more experienced and even at ease.

“He’s actually a little more comfortable on the right side,” Kelly said. “We know what his strengths are and some things he has to continue to work on, he knows what they are.

“We needed to see a bigger-body guy out there at left tackle, too, and Liam gives us that size and strength that maybe [Hainsey] doesn’t have. Robert has outstanding technique. We wanted to be able to see them both.”

In the remaining eight spring practices, concluding with the Blue-Gold Game on April 21, Notre Dame will almost assuredly roll out another offensive line alignment or two, simply to be sure of who can play where before the summer.

Nick Coleman has spent the last two seasons at safety, but the rising senior has reentered the fray at nickelback this spring. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Secondary shifts, as well
Early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith arrived this winter best-described as a defensive back, rather than constricted solely to cornerback or safety. Up until Thursday, he had toiled amidst the cornerbacks, a position group stocked with both known talent and experience. At safety, neither of those commodities is at a proven abundance.

Due to the “plus situation” at cornerback, Griffith flipped to safety Thursday. In turn, rising senior Nick Coleman spent some time at nickelback, rather than safety.

“[Coleman] is a really good athlete,” Kelly said. “He has some really good strength. I gave him a look two years ago at nickel and he did some really good things. We want to be a little more focused on that.”

Listed at 6-foot and 191 pounds, Coleman stands three inches taller and weighs 13 pounds more than rising senior Shaun Crawford, the presumed frontrunner at nickelback. If Coleman proves Kelly correct, Crawford could spend more time on the outside as a more traditional cornerback, creating quite the pass-protection duo alongside rising junior Julian Love.

“We’d like a little bit more size at [nickel],” Kelly said before listing off Crawford’s undeniable intangibles as displayed in particular in the first month of the 2017 season when he forced three turnovers. “But to have somebody like Nick Coleman who has that strength and size at that position, it just made sense that we’d let them both compete in there at that position.”

Quarterback commentary
Rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush spent spring break working with former Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly and some others, focusing on Wimbush’s mechanics. Throughout the fall, Brian Kelly would acknowledge Wimbush had some improvements to make in that regard, but the fixes were too big picture to be properly addressed during the season. Working through break was an extension of that necessity.

Wimbush worked with that particular group, led by former MLB pitcher Tom House, partly because his head coach knows the process House uses and how it closely parallels Notre Dame’s.

“Brandon has made some great progress with his accuracy, his consistency,” Kelly said. “He did a great job today … where we add a little bit of chaos to the situation. He went through a progression and checked it down to his [running back] for a touchdown. Good poise and presence in the pocket.”

Rising junior quarterback Ian Book’s performance has been less consistent than his quarterback competition counterpart.

“Ian’s been a little bit spotty at times in the morning with his reads,” Kelly said. “Sometimes that’s just focus and concentration on his part, but his feet are light. He’s throwing the ball well.”

Injury update
Rising senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery returned to practice from a concussion suffered last week, while rising sophomore receiver Michael Young is now in the concussion protocol after a hit in Tuesday’s practice.

Rees recognizes Book’s challenge from both sides of the Notre Dame QB competition

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In its retelling, Ian Book’s press conference following last spring’s Blue-Gold Game gains a bit of humble drama. The then-freshman did not completely acquiesce Notre Dame’s starting quarterback role to Brandon Wimbush. He simply acknowledged reality and its likelihoods. Wimbush was the presumed Irish starter with DeShone Kizer headed to the NFL and Malik Zaire transferring to Florida.

Recognizing that fact did not mean Book liked the pecking order.

“Obviously, I think I can be the starter,” Book said nearly a full 12 months ago. “Brandon is a great player. … If something were to happen, and it’s the next man in, I would be able to do a good job.”

Book started only one game in 2017, but he was called on three times in competitive situations, and in two of them he performed quite well, certainly better than “good.” Before the season had even ended, Book knew he was more than “the next man in,” per Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Tom Rees. A disappointing November forced the Irish coaching staff to have both Book and Wimbush ready heading into the New Year’s Day matchup with LSU in the Citrus Bowl.

“They knew going into the game, we’re going to make the decision that gives us the best opportunity to win and everybody in this room is on board,” Rees said Tuesday. “They support one another like a brother, and their relationship helps mitigate [any friction].”

Ian Book’s game-winning touchdown pass in the Citrus Bowl against LSU will be a tough one for him to top, as the starter or as the backup ready to step in when needed. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

In memorable fashion, Book led Notre Dame to a second-half comeback, generating the only genuine offensive production of the day while Wimbush remained on the sidelines after a stagnant first half. Wimbush finished the bowl game 3-of-8 for 52 yards while Book threw for 164 yards and two touchdowns on 14-of-19 passing.

Nonetheless, with a full offseason ahead of them, Rees wanted both Wimbush and Book to move past that day’s results and focus on a quarterback competition to come.

“Nothing changes. We talked as soon as the game was over,” Rees said. “You step into the [football facilities], you expect to be the guy. Same thing to Ian, you expect to be the guy.”

During his Irish career, Rees experienced such a situation from both sides of the duel. He was the incumbent quarterback working through growing pains while the unproven-but-unblemished backup challenged for the job. Before that, Rees was the backup trying to show he was ready to become the starter.

When Rees makes comparisons between himself and Book, a rising junior, it is that latter situation he alludes to. Rees had performed well in forced duty to end his freshman season after starter Dayne Crist suffered a season-ending injury, yet once healthy, Crist was slotted back into the starting role. Rees set to usurping that order.

Book may be a year older than Rees was then, and Wimbush’s benching came due to inefficiency and inaccuracy rather than injury, but the task ahead of Book remains the same as the challenge Rees faced.

“You need to be sharp mentally and then accuracy can never be an issue with him,” Rees said. “You need to be the most accurate quarterback we have.

“… He needs to recognize coverage, push himself to understand where we’re trying to go with the ball, and when he delivers it, he needs to be as accurate as anyone in the country.”

In other words, Book needs to erase any doubt. Wimbush, a rising senior, at least has game footage of repeated successes to give him some cushion in coaches’ minds. Book’s game film consists of the strong performance against LSU, a rout of North Carolina and a contributing role to the debacle in Miami. Even that 17-of-31 showing against the Tar Heels came along with two interceptions, half of his four in only 75 season-long pass attempts, compared to Wimbush’s six interceptions in 275 attempts.

“All the other intangibles you hope come along and pull you through,” Rees said. “… You need to be the sharpest guy and the most accurate to really play at a high level.”

As Book progressed throughout the 2017 season, perhaps especially coming off the week as starter against North Carolina while Wimbush recovered from a foot injury, he still showed his flaws in practice too often to set the stage for an in-season quarterback controversy. That consistency is still sought.

“[Book] can’t have some lows in practice and then raise it all of a sudden when we get to team [drills],” Rees said. “He needs to be steady throughout the whole process.

“For him, you see a different mentality, a different attitude, where he’s really attacking, where he’s really taking ownership. When he’s in there, he’s taking ownership of the offense.”

Book thought he was ready to take that lead a year ago, but understood it was not about to happen. Accuracy and consistency could now change that once-acknowledged reality.

Wimbush and Notre Dame’s on-field development aided by not heeding off-field talk

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About only a fifth of the country uses Twitter. Maybe that number is a bit higher or lower depending on what approximation of automated users is more accurate than another, but the primary point stands: The voices on social media are a minority, but they are also often the loudest.

Tom(my) Rees had to learn to look past that latter point and remember the former when he was starting as Notre Dame’s quarterback. As a freshman starter, that outside noise got to him a bit, the Irish quarterbacks coach acknowledged Tuesday. It continued to bother him during his sophomore year, too, in 2011.

Thus, Rees understands the lessons rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush needs to learn. As a first-year starter last year, Wimbush produced beyond any expectations for two months before stumbling throughout November and getting benched in the Citrus Bowl. The critics were far from few and the opposite of quiet.

“Anytime you’re a first-year starter, especially in the way media and technology and social media are, everything is right there at your fingertips,” Rees said. “It’s hard for a young man his age to block some of that out. As the year went on, we talked at length about you can’t pay attention to that stuff. You just can’t.”

For Rees, Twitter had not even reached its current critical mass six or seven years ago. The social media barbs were quite few compared to what flows forth nowadays. Nonetheless, Rees had positive influences, including his father, warning him of the follies of following social media, of reading the press, of noticing headlines. It took steadfast teammates such as former Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin to get through to Rees, their argument helped by Rees “making a mistake off the field.”

Following an arrest in the 2011 offseason, Rees finally learned his lesson about what opinions matter and what ones do not, a lesson Wimbush may seem primed to learn after not seeing any action in the second half of the New Year’s Day victory over LSU.

“As you get older, you start to learn all that really matters is when I’m in this building, when I’m on the field with my teammates,” Rees said. “It’s their opinion, and how I’m working, how I’m preparing myself.

“Everything else will take care of itself.”

Wimbush was making progress in blocking out the noise last year, per Rees, and has now apparently left it by “the wayside.” That bodes well as Wimbush develops the on-field skills necessary to complete a season with the production level he displayed in September and October.

As much as that will hinge on mechanics — and it will, with Rees specifically mentioning Wimbush’s arm speed needing to match his foot speed in order to develop a rhythm on shorter routes — it will depend even more so on Wimbush’s comprehension of the game improving. Such should be expected from a quarterback who just finished his first season seeing live defenses.

“The biggest thing is recognizing the defense and understanding the playbook,” Rees said. “If you understand what the defense is trying to do, and where your answers are, that gives you the opportunity to play fast. The game starts to slow down for you.

“… When you start to understand why you’re calling a play for specific looks, it gives you the opportunity to really process everything at the line and deliver the ball on time.”

Every indication from Rees spoke well of Wimbush’s progress in the playbook, of his developing mechanics and of his ignoring the peanut gallery, but Rees would not commit to Wimbush taking a lead over rising junior Ian Book in the quarterback competition this spring.

“We’re taking the step forward where they are both getting a ton of work,” Rees said when asked directly if Wimbush has lost his starting role. “They both are getting opportunities with the ones and the twos. They both are getting the opportunity to go out there and make plays. We’re going to evaluate this as it keeps going.”

Perhaps that is just a party line and Wimbush is still entrenched as the starter. Perhaps it is very much the truth and Book is pushing to take the first snap in the season opener against Michigan on Sept. 1. Either way, what Rees (and Irish head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long) tells the world should not affect Wimbush. These headlines, articles and tweets linking to them should slip right past him.

Familiar praise of Notre Dame’s tight ends rings anew

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There comes a point when repeated vague praises ring hollow. Until proven true, they are nothing but the echoes of potential. One can be forgiven for feeling that way with half of Notre Dame’s active tight ends this spring, but the applause of coaches and teammates alike pertains to both of the healthy tight ends, so at least some of it should be given due consideration.

With fifth-year Nic Weishar and rising sophomore Brock Wright both recovering from shoulder surgeries and early-enrolled freshman George Takacs out after a cartilage surgery, only rising senior Alizé Mack (pictured above) and rising sophomore Cole Kmet are currently full-go among the tight ends.

High expectations have followed Mack throughout his career, particularly since a 45-yard grab as a freshman helped set up the Irish for a come-from-behind victory at No. 21 Temple in October of 2015. Even though Mack missed his sophomore season due to academic issues, he landed on the John Mackey Award watch list heading into 2017, identifying him as among the nation’s most-talented tight ends.

Of course, Mack managed just 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown last season, not exactly the production anticipated from a Mackey candidate. He appeared in only 10 games, partly due to a concussion and partly due to further disciplinary missteps.

Such has not yet been a concern for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly this spring.

“He’s been more consistent,” Kelly said Saturday. “Obviously, what plagued him last year was inconsistency. Everything that he did was inconsistent.

“… I’m happy for him that he’s showing some consistency. When he does, the jury is still out there. He still has a ways to go.”

That is the repeated, albeit certainly tempered and possibly now accurate, recognition at tight end. Kelly’s regards for Kmet may have been as predictable, and they serve to put Mack on notice. Even when Durham Smythe was ahead of him on the depth chart, no other Irish tight end could match Mack’s athleticism or top-end impact. Kmet just might.

“Cole certainly creates a competitive situation there,” Kelly said. “It’s [Mack’s] job to motivate himself, but I would think that’s pretty motivating to watch [Kmet] and what he does.”

Even as a consensus four-star recruit and the No. 3 tight end in his class, per rivals.com, any previous hype about Kmet pales in comparison to the commentary after seeing him in first-team situations a full year into his collegiate career. Kelly ran through the gamut of situations in which Kmet has excelled this spring, citing soft hands, physical blocking and an aggressiveness when running after the catch.

Notre Dame lists Kmet at 6-foot-5 ½ and Mack at 6-foot-4 ¾. That difference is negligible, but it reinforces Kmet may offer the same luxury for quarterbacks that Mack does, an ability to go up and get the ball almost no matter where it is thrown, something also available in 6-foot-4 receivers rising junior Chase Claypool and rising senior Miles Boykin.

“You put it in their area, those guys are going to come down with it,” rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush said. “Last year we averaged 6-4, 6-5 outside, and obviously Miles and Chase are the same size, then those two guys inside.”

The matching of size and speed with strong hands has long been sought from Mack. He has yet to truly bring the reputation of “Tight End U” to fruition. Then again, he has not had Kmet around offering similar possibilities.

(UND.com)

Kmet’s excellence elsewhere
In the spring, Kmet also contributes as an Irish relief pitcher. In 10 appearances and 22.2 innings to date, Kmet has struck out 19 with an ERA of 2.78 and a WHIP of 1.32, notching three saves. If he wanted, Kmet could spend even more time away from the football team as a result of the baseball duties.

Kelly said he gave Kmet the chance to miss Saturday morning’s practice after recording a save Friday evening. Instead, Kmet dismissed the notion outright.

“His response was, ‘I threw like 15 (pitches). I didn’t do anything for like two hours. Of course I’m practicing,’” Kelly said of Kmet’s incredulity. “That’s just the kind of guy he is. He’s just fun to watch.”

Could those abilities lead to a decision down the line a la former Irish receiver/pitcher Jeff Samardzija? It is a natural question to ask, if for no other reason than the University involved.

“As far as the baseball part of it? Yeah, maybe,” Notre Dame baseball manager Mik Aoki told ND Insider’s Eric Hansen. “… While the curveball could get a little sharper and the change-up could certainly get a little better and all those types of things, he’s got the most important thing. He’s got the mental toughness to go out there and compete.”